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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
The Complete Songs, Volume 2
The Hyperion French Song Edition: Un Paysage Choisi

Mai, Op. 1, No. 2* [2’18]
Puisqu’ici-bas toute âme, Op. 10, No 1** [2’51"]
Dans les ruines d’une abbaye, op. 2, No. 1*** [1’57"]
Lydia, Op. 4, no 2* [3’22"]
L’absent, Op. 5, No. 3*** [4’26"]
Chant d’automne, Op. 5, No 1 *** [4’17"]
Tristesse, op. 6, No 2**** [2’50"]
Après un rêve, Op. 7, No. 1***** [2’39"]
Le voyageur, Op. 18, No 2****** [1’45"]
Sérénade toscane, Op. 3, No 2***** [3’07"]
Automne, Op. 18, No 3**** [2’40"]
La féé aux chansons, Op. 27, No 2**** [1’50"
Noël, Op. 43, No 1***** [2’53"]
Claire de lune, Op. 46, no 2******* [2’55"]
Spleen, Op. 51, No 3*** [2’16"]
Il est né, le divin enfant **** [1’32"]
En prière **** [2’19"]
Prison, Op. 83, No. 1 ****** [2’07"]
Dans la forèt de septembre *** [3’35"]
Chanson, Op. 94 *** [1’16"]
Le jardin clos, Op. 106 ********* [13’10"]
*Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor); **Geraldine McGreevy (soprano) & Stella Doufexis (soprano); *** Stephen Varcoe (baritone); **** Geraldine McGreevy (soprano); *****John Mark Ainsley (tenor); ****** Christopher Maltman( baritone); ******* Dame Felicity Lott (soprano); *********Jennifer Smith (soprano); Graham Johnson (piano)
Recorded on various dates in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Location not specified. DDD
HYPERION CDA67334 [68’03"]

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Within their long-running French Song Edition Hyperion are devoting four volumes to an intégrale of the songs of Gabriel Fauré. The first volume was warmly welcomed by my colleagues, Ian Lace in February and Kevin Sutton the following month. It’s very good news that collectors haven’t had to wait long for the second instalment.

To recap briefly, the songs are to be gathered together in four thematically planned albums. Within each programme the songs will be presented chronologically, which makes sense. Graham Johnson, the moving spirit behind the project, maintains this thematic arrangement is preferable to a simple chronological survey. A chronological presentation, inevitably, would mean a concentration in at least one CD on the early songs, not all of which are of the greatest interest. I think he’s right but the slight snag is that one sometimes has the impression that the basic premise behind these thematic layouts is being stretched rather a long way to justify the inclusion of some songs in a particular album. However, the main thing is that the songs are here and in performances that are, in the main, first class.

The title of this particular collection, Un Paysage Choisi (‘A Chosen Landscape’) is taken from the first line of the famous song, Claire de Lune. A good number of songs are concerned with seasons of the year. Others are concerned with physical landscapes or, as Johnson puts it, "other landscapes which are less specific … but no less evocative."

All the singers assembled here featured in Volume 1, with one exception. This is the tenor, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who is French, I assume. (The one omission in the otherwise excellent documentation is any biographies of the artists.) I haven’t heard him before but I like his singing very much. He opens the programme with Mai (track 1) and he makes an immediately pleasing impression with his nice, easy delivery, his clear diction and the light, sappy tone of his tenor. He’s equally good in Lydia (track 4), a wonderful song, though for my taste it’s taken a fraction too slowly here.

To the other tenor, John Mark Ainsley, falls one of the plums in the collection, the celebrated Après un rêve (track 8) Much though I admire Ainsley I’m not quite sure about some of his French pronunciation here and I rather wish the song had been allocated to Fouchécourt. I’m much happier with his performance of Sérénade toscane (track 10). He sounds more at ease with the language and I also have the impression that the line and the tessitura suit his voice better.

That song is followed by Automne (track 11), one of the songs sung by Geraldine McGreevy. This is a marvellous, eloquent song and McGreevy does it full justice. Indeed, some of the sounds she made reminded me of Dame Janet Baker, and I can think of no higher praise. She lightens her tone beautifully for the very next song, La féé aux chansons (track 12). This song isn’t the equal of Automne but it is "a shy and neglected song of aerial enchantment" as Graham Johnson describes it, with a typically felicitous turn of phrase.

Sadly, on this particular album there is only one contribution from Dame Felicity Lott, which is a pity since she is one of the leading exponents of French song of her generation. She gives us the exquisite Claire de lune (track 14) and doesn’t disappoint. This is an effortless performance, full of irresistible charm and grace.

The major soprano item on the programme is the late song cycle, Le jardin clos (tracks 21 – 28.) This cycle, which dates from 1914, sets poems by the Belgian poet, Charles Van Lerberghe, whose poetry Fauré had already chosen for the cycle, La chanson d’Ève (1906.) These 1914 settings are typical of later Fauré, being harmonically elusive and melodically sophisticated. All but two of the eight songs are in slow tempo and the principal underlying theme is "distanced eroticism" as Johnson puts it. For the most part the emotion is restrained and private. Even in the third song, La messagère (track 23), which Johnson rightly describes as "a big song" and which is more public than the others, if I may put it that way, the feelings are not displayed heart-on-sleeve.

The soloist in this cycle is Jennifer Smith and she sings with intelligence and evident sympathy for the music. However, I feel there’s a touch of hardness in some of the vowel sounds and in the tone she produces. To my ears the sound is often a bit nasal. This is a highly subjective response and other listeners may well not hear the singing in the same way. However, for all the merits of Smith’s performance I can’t help feeling that an opportunity has been missed and that the cycle would have been even more convincing if sung by Dame Felicity.

The baritone songs are shared between Stephen Varcoe and Christopher Maltman. Varcoe has long been a singer I admire and I enjoyed all his performances here. In particular the "sad grandeur" (Johnson) of Dans la forèt de septembre (track 19) suits him admirably and he delivers this lovely song most eloquently. Maltman, too, is a fine singer. His first song on the CD, Le voyageur (track 9) represents something of a mood switch since it is the first forceful song we have heard. Maltman projects it strongly. He also does extremely well in Prison (track 18), a succinct setting of powerful melancholy. It’s rivetingly sung by Maltman.

I’ve focused on the singers but this is rather unfair. As always Graham Johnson is much, much more than a "mere" accompanist. Every song becomes a true artistic partnership. His piano playing is packed with insight and radiates sympathy for and understanding of the music at every turn. You feel that he is ‘with’ his singers at all times – he must be a joy for a singer to work with. Besides devising the programmes Johnson contributes superb notes (as usual). How does he find the time to write these detailed booklet notes? When one thinks of his notes for all the other Hyperion projects that he has undertaken he has become, effectively, an author of major essays (if not books) on the song repertoire. As always, his notes here are full of information and perception and he leads the reader on just as persuasively as he leads the listener on when he puts down his pen and turns to the keyboard. Time and again he has a marvellous turn of phrase and he possesses the rare gift of making his reader want to hear right now the music about which he or she is reading.

Needless to say, Hyperion provides full French texts and English translations. (Does any label consistently provide such excellent documentation?) The recordings, made over a period of time and in an unspecified location(s) are very even in quality and reproduce both voice and piano very well.

Despite a couple of reservations this is a very fine collection indeed. Hyperion is doing Fauré proud. I for one can’t wait for Volumes 3 and 4. In the meantime this CD (and its predecessor) will do very nicely. This disc has given me enormous pleasure and will continue to do so, I know. I recommend it urgently.

John Quinn

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